ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Here are my five thoughts on the Buffalo Bills’ divisional-round playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Highmark Stadium:
1. The Bills’ most logical path to victory is generating an effective pass rush against a Bengals offensive line missing three starters. I fully expect them to follow it successfully.
Joe Burrow, who along with Josh Allen will be one of the two best players on the field, has been sacked 23 times in five career postseason games. That’s the second-highest total in NFL history.
But sacks, alone, won’t get the job done for the Bills. The Tennessee Titans got Burrow to the ground nine times in a divisional-round game last year (when Cincinnati’s O-line also was in terrible shape), and though he failed to throw a touchdown pass, the Bengals still scored a 19-16 victory. Against Burrow, pressures mean every bit as much as sacks and are arguably more important, provided they result in getting him off of his throwing marks.
The din from a sellout crowd should help force the Bengals’ offensive line into false-start penalties and other mistakes from communication struggles that should work heavily to the Bills’ advantage. So, too, should the fact Borrow is a pocket-oriented quarterback who only runs when it’s absolutely necessary.
This is when the Bills must show they can overcome the absence of their best pass rusher, Von Miller, who they have clearly missed lately. Greg Rousseau has to be a larger force than he was in last Sunday’s wild-card win against the Miami Dolphins. The same goes for Shaq Lawson. Boogie Basham and Ed Oliver also must make their presence felt.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier no doubt has been busy devising a scheme that will incorporate heavy blitzing, because Bengals running back Joe Mixon is awful in pass protection. That plan should include heavy doses of Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds.
2. Can the Bills’ secondary hold its own pass coverage?
The team has significant challenges on the back end of its defense. The loss of Micah Hyde to a neck injury that has caused him to miss most of the season continues to be a lingering issue. Hyde’s ability to serve as the quarterback of the defensive backfield has been greatly missed.
The Bills have had to lean heavily on youth and depth, which rose to the occasion against the Dolphins’ dynamic receivers and a rookie quarterback starting his first playoff game. The Bengals have dynamic receivers as well, in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, plus one of the best quarterbacks in the game who played in the Super Bowl last February.
Jordan Poyer will need to be at his absolute best as the most talented player the Bills have in their secondary. Tre’Davious White continues to make progress in his comeback from major knee surgery, but still shows he has a way to go.
Rookie corner Kaiir Elam, who had an interception against Miami, is picking up his game at the right time. Safety Dean Marlowe, who also had an interception against the Dolphins, is providing some better-than-expected help as someone added to fill out depth.
3. How big of a concern is Josh Allen’s turnovers?
Of course, they matter. It’s fair to say the three he had last Sunday not only helped erase the Bills’ 17-0 lead but nearly caused them to come out on the wrong end of a game they had no business losing. It’s also fair to say that the three turnovers the Bills have had in each of their last three games are at least somewhat troubling, even though the team is on an eight-game winning streak.
The bottom line, however, is that the Bills have consistently overcome their giveaways. And when an offense is built to be as aggressive and attack-oriented as the one the Bills employ, it stands to reason they — and especially Allen — will turn the ball over. Don’t expect that to change Sunday or in any games the Bills play.
Critics of Allen’s game can point out all of the flaws they like, but the fact remains he has accounted for the most offensive yards per game (353.9) in the history of the NFL playoffs. That’s substantially more than the next two names on the list: Patrick Mahomes (336.7) and Colin Kaepernick (313.5).
Allen’s running dimension is what does the most to set him apart from Burrow and other top quarterbacks in the league. Combine that with what he can do is a passer and you have the primary reason the Bills are favored to win Sunday.
4. Popular opinion notwithstanding, the Bills’ greatest vulnerability in this game isn’t their secondary. It’s their offensive tackles.
The Bengals have a pair of impactful defensive ends in Sam Hubbard, who made the difference-making fumble-recovery return for a touchdown in last Sunday night’s wild-card win against Baltimore, and Trey Hendrickson. They figure to provide Bills tackles Dion Dawkins and Spencer Brown, both of whom have had their struggles, all they can handle.
Allen’s running could also be compromised, as it was against Miami, by Cincinnati’s interior defensive line duo of DJ Reader and B.J. Hill.
5. The Bills shouldn’t forget about what happened in Kansas City last January, those fateful 13 seconds that cost them a divisional-round win against the Chiefs, but they also should remember that Sunday is only another step in a larger journey.
It’s reasonable to at least wonder how much that KC nightmare will be on the Bills’ collective mind. Too much would make it a distraction. Just enough would add it to a long motivational list that includes the spiritual lift from Damar Hamlin’s frightening cardiac arrest that stopped and eventually cancelled the regular-season meeting against the Bengals.
Von Miller showed some veteran psychological savvy by bringing a replica Vince Lombardi trophy into the Bills’ locker room to remind his teammates of the prize they’re pursuing. That should be all the motivation the team needs to finally win it all.